The Democratic Implications of Four More Years of Correa
Photo Credit: Agência Brasil
This Sunday, Ecuadorians will go to the polls to choose a president in what is expected to be a landslide reelection victory for President Rafael Correa. Pollsters predict that Correa will win by as many as 40-50% over the leading opposition candidate, Guillermo Lasso, the former head of the Ecuadorian bank, Banco de Guayaquil. Correa’s PAIS party is also likely to win an overwhelming majority of the 137 National Assembly seats, which will be contested on the same day. While Correa’s victory will serve to reinforce the global perception that he is an immensely popular president, there is a far darker reality: Correa has managed one of Latin America’s largest democratic declines in recent decades. It is no coincidence that Ecuador’s 2013 campaign has been one of the country’s quietest in history. Through new laws and intimidation tactics, Correa has effectively eliminated the sort of debate that should be the hallmark of the electoral process in a functioning democracy.
In Freedom House’s recently published Freedom in the World 2013 survey, Ecuador was rated partly free for the 13th year in a row, but received aggregate scores of just 24 out of 40 and 36 out of 60 respectively for the two categories that Freedom House uses to measure freedom: political rights and civil liberties. In 2007, when Correa assumed the presidency, Ecuador was in the midst of ongoing political turmoil, with its three previous presidents being ushered out of office before the end of their constitutional terms. Nonetheless, in the 2007 survey Ecuador received a 28 for political rights and a 41 for civil liberties (see table below). Ecuador’s nine-point decline is the 14th largest in the world and the 5th largest in the region over the last six years. For the year 2012, Ecuador’s decline was highlighted by a downward trend arrow. The latest survey placed Ecuador as the 29th freest country in the Americas, ahead of only Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Changes in Subcategory scores for Ecuador from 2007-2013
Political Rights Subcategories:
B=Political Pluralism and Participation
C=Functioning of Government
Civil Liberties Subcategories:
D=Freedom of Expression and Belief
E=Associational and Organizational Rights
F=Rule of Law
G=Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights
*Subcategory scores for categories A, C, and E range from 1-12. Scores for subcategories B, D, F, and G range from 1-16.
Much of Ecuador’s democratic decline over the last six years is attributable to Correa’s restrictions on freedoms of expression and association. Correa has used intimidation tactics and antiquated criminal defamation laws to silence opinions he does not agree with, particularly those expressed in the news media. Correa famously sued the newspaper El Universo for libel in 2011 in response to an opinion article it published which claimed that the President had ordered military forces to fire on civilians during a demonstration by striking police officers. Since then, Correa has frequently ordered the unjustifiable closure of independent radio and television stations throughout the country.
In January 2012, he went a step further toward silencing the press by using his line-item veto power to change the electoral process to limit press coverage of election campaigns. The vaguely worded law that he pushed through the National Assembly prohibits media organizations from “directly or indirectly promoting a candidate or view during the campaign.” The law was passed in January 2012 on the heels of a ubiquitous state-run advertising campaign, which used fear-mongering to present opponents of the law as slanderous representatives of a political “old guard” that sought to undo Correa’s social justice agenda and turn back the political clock. According to the prominent Ecuadorian press freedom organization Fundamedios, the law amounts to “censure” of the press and is “expressly prohibited by the Constitution that was approved via referendum in 2008.”
Correa also used electoral changes to centralize power in the executive branch and weaken the role of the legislature in checking executive power. The reform included a provision to modify the seat allocation formula for the National Assembly to favor larger parties which, according to domestic and international critics, will give his PAIS party an additional advantage in the upcoming elections.
Correa’s new laws have not only tipped the electoral playing field in his favor, but have also deprived citizens of important information about the campaign. During his six years in office Correa has given a uniquely public face to the presidency, delivering weekly “cadenas” and frequently addressing the people; however, he has only been willing to communicate on his terms. As Freedom House reported in June, 2012 he has urged his supporters not to grant interviews to the “corrupt” private media and, more recently, he was the only one of the eight presidential candidates who rejected Fundamedios’ request to participate in a survey about the putative role of freedom of expression in Ecuador’s democracy. While Correa has repeatedly disowned his predecessors for their corrupt ways, he has brought an unprecedented lack of transparency to the presidency. Ecuador was ranked 118th out of the 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
As Ecuadorians prepare to elect President Correa to a third term, the international community should publicly express its concern about the country’s democratic trajectory. While Correa has wisely and effectively imported certain elements of other Latin American countries’ models for economic reform—including a cash transfer program for the poor, economic reforms to grow the country’s middle class, and an ambitious infrastructure agenda—when it comes to democratic governance he has instead chosen to follow Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a handful of other Latin American leaders who have systematically eroded civil liberties and enacted measures to produce inequitable electoral environments. Citizens deserve greater transparency and accountability, as well as greater respect for freedom of expression, from their government. Unfortunately, if the last six years are any indicator, they will not get them from Rafael Correa.